TV stations still obsessed with dead child beauty queen

Six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was strangled 20 years ago and the case remains unsolved.
Six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was strangled 20 years ago and the case remains unsolved.PHOTO: USA TODAY

NEW YORK • Television can be a great unifier and that can be a useful thing - in a time of national crisis or triumph, for instance. But not always. At the moment, TV seems determined to have us believe that we should be ghoulishly obsessed with the ugly murder of a six-yearold girl 20 years ago.

Suddenly JonBenet Ramsey is everywhere as CBS, A&E, Investigation Discovery and more try to capitalise on the coming anniversary of her strange and brutal death in Boulder, Colorado, during Christmas in 1996.

You remember JonBenet. How could you not, since she has been reappearing regularly in the media for the past two decades every time the investigation into her murder has taken some incremental twist? She is the child made into a household name by her unsolved killing and the endless replaying of somewhat uncomfortable videos of her competing in beauty pageants.

Her parents John and Patsy have alternately been the leading suspects in her death or the most wronged mum and dad in history. The initial police investigation is a case study in ineptitude.

And TV is determined to make this child the O.J. Simpson of 2016. The A&E network got things started last week with The Killing Of JonBenet: The Truth Uncovered, a two-hour documentary whose very title was a lie - the truth was not uncovered.

Yesterday brought Investigation Discovery's JonBenet: An American Murder Mystery, a three-night re-examination of the case that may turn out to be the most dignified of the lot. True crime is what Investigation Discovery does. Sure, its look at JonBenet is tabloidish, but is straightforward and generally keeps the luridness in check.

The A&E programme, in contrast, treated us to the sight of the dead girl's bruised, discoloured neck while we heard this description: "The killer first placed the garrote low on JonBenet's neck, throttling but not killing her. As the garrote was pulled tighter, it rode higher up her neck."

TV does not get much more dehumanising than that.

Also on yesterday was the first instalment of a three-part interview on Dr Phil with Burke Ramsey, JonBenet's brother, who was nine at the time of the murder. One theory that emerged early in the case was that Burke somehow killed her and that his parents orchestrated a cover-up.

And on Sunday, CBS will jump in with The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey, a six-hour docu-series that, in its own description, "unites former investigators with new experts to reexamine the 20-year-old unsolved murder". The clips promise a longer, more drawn-out dissection of the same material covered in the other programmes.

Maybe the CBS programme will at least break the tie. So far, the A&E special seemed determined to exonerate the Ramseys (Patsy died in 2006), while the Investigation Discovery one leans somewhat in the other direction.

Lifetime is also planning a TV movie. Last week, Inside Edition had a segment on how the current owners of the home where the killing took place have renovated it. In TV's opinion, apparently, there is no limit to the amount of JonBenet-related goo we should be force-fed.

We can partly blame Simpson for all this. TV recently discovered that his already thoroughly strip-mined story was good for another round of excavation, so why not try again with a case with the same sort of botched police work and clearly delineated opinion camps?

The difference, though, is that the Simpson case took on broader significance because of its racial components.

The JonBenet case has nothing so elevating. Maybe the CBS docu-series will hit the jackpot and lead to criminal charges - the gold standard for these types of programmes ever since last year's HBO series The Jinx: The Life And Deaths Of Robert Durst. If it does not, prepare to feel guilty for gawking at this dead girl all over again.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'TV stations still obsessed with dead child beauty queen'. Print Edition | Subscribe